Pioneer Group, the investment and mutual fund company that has stumbled because of money-losing overseas ventures, said it could return to profitability as early as the second quarter.
The chances of the company ending the second quarter in the black are "too close to call" at this point, but both the third and fourth quarters are definitely shaping up to be profitable, said Timothy Frost, a spokesman for the Boston-based company.
Pioneer, which lost $33.5 million in 1998, expects a loss for the first quarter as well.
But it foresees getting back in the black because of the growth of its core asset management business. And selling noncore businesses or finding partners for them will make the company even more profitable, Mr. Frost said.
Pioneer plans to sell its Ghanian gold mine, find a partner for its Siberian timber operation, and sell its domestic venture capital unit.
But the New York investment bank Putnam, Lovell, de Guardiola & Thornton Inc. said it does not expect Pioneer to be profitable until the fourth quarter.
That's because the investment bank is not certain that the deals involving the noncore businesses will happen soon and without them Pioneer may remain in the red, said Neil Epstein, an analyst with Putnam Lovell.
"We've been hesitant to go ahead and make assumptions about deals," he said. "That's always a hard thing to forecast."
The first deal is likely to be the sale of the venture capital business. Pioneer said it is in discussions with a potential buyer and expects an agreement by the end of the first quarter.
Though that business unit is profitable, its sale would bring Pioneer a much-needed infusion of cash. Pioneer also wants to avoid the start-up costs of an investment fund that the unit's managers want to launch, Mr. Frost said.
Despite the poor results of late, Pioneer's core domestic asset management unit has remained strong. It reported a $36 million profit in 1998, up from $32.1 million in 1997.
U.S. fund sales were $3.9 billion in 1998, with sales through banks accounting for about 10% of that. Worldwide the company had $23.4 billion of assets under management at the beginning of the year.
Pioneer's overseas financial services unit lost $17.7 million last year but may end up as a strong performer. Particularly promising is the company's operation in Poland, which is positioned for a piece of the action as the country privatizes its pension system.
"Poland makes a heck of a lot of sense," Mr. Epstein said. "They'll be criticized very heavily for being overseas, given what has happened. I'm not sure that's fair."
At the same time, Pioneer is closing its Russian brokerage subsidiary, which is not the first setback that Russia's volatile economy has dealt the company. Last year Pioneer divested its majority stake in a Russian bank that ran into trouble over unauthorized loans. That episode cost Pioneer $6.5 billion in 1998.
Pioneer attributed part of its fourth-quarter loss of $10.2 million to investments meant to strengthen the company. For instance, the company is preparing a large-scale marketing campaign for Poland. It has also added investment management staff and has expanded its product line.
The biggest losses continue to come from the unit that includes the gold mine and the timber business. It lost $41.2 million last year.
Pioneer said it is in talks with several parties in its search for partners for the timber concern. And it plans to approach a "select group" of buyers in an attempt to sell the gold mine.